Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Jeanne O’Brien

Bridgewater State University

When it comes to working with athletes, there isn’t much that Jeanne O’Brien, MS, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer and Clinical Support Supervisor for Athletic Training students at Bridgewater State University, hasn’t seen. And there is no age group she hasn’t worked with.

From teams in high school to NCAA Divisions I, II, and III, to athletes competing in senior games, O’Brien has worked in a variety of settings and interacted with many different populations during her 20-plus years in the field. Throw in her work at home raising four children–ages 10, seven, five, and three–and it all adds up to a perspective well suited for mentoring and educating students who choose the athletic training profession.

As Head Athletic Trainer, O’Brien oversees three assistant athletic trainers and a graduate assistant at Bridgewater State, a Division III school. O’Brien got her start after receiving her bachelor’s degree in Health/Fitness and Athletic Training from Springfield College in 1986 and a master’s degree in Sports Injury Prevention and Management from the same school in 1992. She went on to work as an Assistant Athletic Trainer and Instructor at East Carolina University for a year and then returned to Springfield as the school’s Head Athletic Trainer and an Assistant Professor, working there as it transitioned from NCAA Division II to Division III. In the fall of 2001, she also served as Outreach Athletic Trainer for Plymouth (Mass.) South High School.

In her five years at Bridgewater State, O’Brien has provided coverage for the NCAA Division III men’s and women’s basketball championships, and she spearheaded athletic training services for the NCAA Division I volleyball championships and a variety of NCAA Division II championships during her time at Springfield. O’Brien has also lent her sports medicine expertise to the Boston Marathon, the U.S. Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball team, and various youth sport events. She prides herself on more than a dozen years teaching in athletic training education programs.

We talked to O’Brien about her career experiences and how she strikes a healthy work-life balance. She also shares her views on the differences between the various levels of the NCAA and dispenses advice on working with athletes, coaches, and athletic administrators.

T&C: How is working at a Division I school different from Divisions II and III and high schools?

O’Brien: High schools and Division III teams don’t have the resources to afford the number of strength and conditioning coaches that Division I schools have. So the athletic trainers often have to spend time putting together the strength and conditioning programs.

But based on what makes sports fun, I prefer Division III, Division II, and high school because at those levels, the athletes are playing for the love of the game–it’s not a job for them like it is for some D-I athletes.

What is your role with strength and conditioning at Bridgewater State? We use screening techniques to find the athletes’ weakest links and figure out ways to improve their imbalances and strength deficits. Then, we provide teams with programs they can use to help their players become better athletes and prevent injuries–which is our top goal.

In your position, what does it mean to be resourceful?

It means you have to capitalize wherever you can and get good people working with you. For example, in Division I, physicians want to be a part of the athletic program and are tripping over each other to work with you. In Division III, you need to go out and find doctors who love sports and want to work with athletes–they’re not banging down the door to work with your teams.

It’s a little more work to find these people and you have to keep your eyes and ears open. That means when you’re talking to a doctor and they seem really excited about athletics, try to think about how you can develop a relationship with them.

An example of that is how we utilize chiropractors here at Bridgewater State. Chiropractic work is very much like athletic training in that it’s a profession not a lot of people understand. We have great relationships with a couple of chiropractors in the area. We send athletes to them and they spend time on our campus helping out–they take care of us and we take care of them.

How do you strike a balance between athletic training and your administrative duties?

It can be challenging, but I’m lucky to have three great assistant athletic trainers and a talented graduate assistant. We have two facilities and I dance back and forth between them. I take time earlier in the day for administrative and policy-related stuff. I can also delegate some of my administrative duties, so I’m very fortunate.

What is the time commitment like? In the fall, I work about 45 to 50 hours a week. I work with the football team then, so about 80 percent of my time is spent providing coverage and 20 percent is for the administrative stuff. In the winter and spring, I’m able to cut back closer to 40 hours a week and I spend about 30 to 40 percent of that time doing administrative tasks. The quieter seasons allow me more time to work on tasks like Web site development, our handbooks, or updating our emergency plan.

What is your approach to working with administrators?

It starts by having an understanding of what their job entails. There are all sorts of variables they deal with and we have to understand that they’re probably juggling a lot of different things–just because I want something to change, it doesn’t mean that’s my athletic director’s top priority at the time.

If I have an issue that deals with safety, my communication is direct and the problem is taken care of immediately. But if it’s something that’s not so serious, I’ll ask for a meeting or send an e-mail about it. I have bi-monthly meetings with my athletic director to make sure the lines of communication are open between us. They’re usually very short and we just fill each other in on what’s going on.

What are the keys to building effective relationships with coaches?

It’s getting to know the coach and understanding their needs and where they come from. Another big part is helping them understand that I’m not here to be an obstacle and sit their athletes out. I let each coach know that I want athletes participating, but if it’s not safe for them to play, then they won’t play. It’s about building trust so the coach understands that if I’m holding someone out, there’s a good reason for it.

However, building that trust takes time–it’s not always there when you show up on the job. And depending on if a coach had negative experiences with a previous athletic trainer, you may have to do damage control at first. Or, they may have worked with who they considered the best athletic trainer ever, and then you showed up so they’re not sure about the change yet.

What do you tell young athletic trainers about working with coaches? Sometimes it’s hard work. And there are some coaches who you’re not going to win over. You have to be diligent and constantly educate coaches and athletic directors about the role of the athletic trainer.

You also need to set boundaries. When you’re younger, it’s hard to be confident and self-assured all the time, which makes it harder to win some coaches over. But even if you can’t win them over, you just do the best you can and do your job.

How do you find a healthy work-life balance? It’s very challenging because even though I can temper my hours, I cover a lot of weekend events. Meanwhile, my kids always have stuff going on during the weekends, so it can be very stressful for our family. But I do make sure that the people I work with know how important spending time with my family is to me. If I’ve met my hours, my work is done, and I don’t need to be there, I’ll be with my family instead.

Before I had a family, I was the type of person who would be at work all the time and when I socialized, I hung out with my athletic training friends. Now, that’s not the case. Having a family also makes it important for me to choose my employers wisely, and make sure they understand that I will do my job and do it well, but family is the most important thing to me. This also means that I won’t be able to work in every athletic training setting out there.

What are the keys to providing good coverage at NCAA championship events? Really, it’s working closely with the athletic administrators on site and people from the NCAA who are in charge and just doing whatever they ask. Don’t try to do things your way–it has to be their way. Service is the key. When we host an event, I want all of the athletes to feel welcome and know that they’re special. Whatever they need, we’re here for them.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the athletic training profession?

Even though our membership is doing a really good job of educating the public about athletic training and what we do, I think our name is still a big problem. There are people, even in the healthcare profession, who still say “trainer” instead of “athletic trainer.”

I think we’re doing everything we can, but we need compliance from the membership and to have the education programs be adamant about teaching students that it’s the “athletic training facility,” not the “training room,” and stuff like that. Yet, even when we do that, there are athletes and coaches who still yell “trainer” when they need something. It’s hard to overcome.

Are there any newer modalities you’re excited about?

I do a lot of manual therapy and am certified in the Graston Technique–a soft tissue instrument-assisted mobilization technique. It uses stainless steel instruments to break down scar tissue and restrictions in soft tissue, which helps athletes heal faster.

What are the keys to keeping the profession fresh and exciting? I really believe in reading and seeing what other professionals are doing to continue advancing their skills. I tell my students they need to constantly think about what they can do to make themselves better athletic trainers after they enter the workforce. It’s something I’m always thinking about and it’s why I believe in manual therapy and learning from chiropractors, osteopaths, physical therapists, orthopedists, and other athletic trainers.


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